Oregon’s wildfire council calls for deeper investment in protection, resources

The Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response met last week for its final meeting. (Sam Stites/ Oregon Capitol Bureau)

The Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response has concluded that the state needs to update its firefighting priorities and techniques to deal with future conflagrations.

At its final meeting last week, the council outlined about nine months of work that produced more than 50 recommendations to improve the state’s firefighting, preparedness and response. The recommendations will be given to Gov. Kate Brown in early November.

Council Chairman Matt Donegan said the group’s proposals could require about $4 billion in investments. Recommendations fall into three categories: creating wildfire-adapted communities, mitigating and developing resilient landscapes to prepare for fire, and supporting effective wildfire response.

“The basic element of this (January) executive order is, are we set up for success? Is what we have today sustainable given the increase in wildfires that we’re seeing?” Donegan asked. “I think the general message back from our committees is no. Many of these systems were built for another era and need to be updated and modernized.”

The primary charge of the 20-member group, Donegan said, was to find the right strategy that hit key areas of interest, such as saving human lives and protecting public health, protecting homes and buildings, removing excess fuel from forests, creating green jobs and revitalizing rural communities.

The council determined that the state needs to reorient some older systems in its firefighting protocol that are outdated for the modern wildfire realities. That includes the way the state monitors public health related to wildfires and smoke, emergency response to the fires, disaster recovery measures, public education about wildfires and improved research efforts at Oregon State University.

Spending more resources

Proposed changes would include a multi-billion dollar, multi-decade fuel mitigation initiative to reduce the proliferation and severity of Oregon wildfires. An investment in fuel mitigation is expected to come from both state and federal dollars, as well as expanded private sector investment and public-private partnerships. 

“The estimates that we hear, it’s going to be $4 billion in terms of total costs,” Donegan said. “It’s larger than any one entity. This is going to take the collective power of the public-private partnership.”

Recommendations to expand fire suppression efforts could mean major changes to the state’s wildfire response, specifically in areas that will help protect firefighters, safeguard buildings and structures, and help the state meet social, ecological and economic goals, Donegan said. 

“In an era of climate change, fuel build up and population growth, we’re going to have to spend more resources in suppressing fire,” he said. “There is a hope that a correlation between fuel loads and suppression, overtime as we invest more in mitigation both with the wildland-urban interface and the landscape, that we can see our suppression cost decline.”

Donegan said state land-use planning tools could be used to create cost savings by taking hard looks at defensible space fire control methods — creating landscaped buffers around structures designed to reduce fire danger — as well as building and zoning codes to create statewide standards in community fire suppression planning.

After the council presents its recommendations in November, it will be up to the governor and the Legislature to develop options, set priorities for recommended actions and find a way to fund the estimated $4 billion of investment in state’s wildfire preparedness, response and suppression. 

DOCUMENT: Wildfire council outline of recommendations

“I’m really pleased with the council’s work,” Brown told reporters after the council meeting. “This is a diverse group of Oregonians that came together to spend a lot of time and energy to address the changing needs of our communities across the state as it relates to wildfire. It is absolutely instrumental that the state play a role in bringing all the parts together to create healthier public lands, healthier forests and of course, healthier and safe communities for Oregonians.”

Smoky summers for some

Improved fire response, more resilient landscapes and better fire adaptive communities to keep Oregonians health topped the governor’s list of priorities after hearing Donegan’s pitch.

As an example of fire and smoke adaptive communities, Brown pointed to the Rogue Valley, where, for the past several summers, residents have dealt with horrid air quality due to wildfires. 

“The Oregon Shakespeare Festival typically does an outdoor production. They had to cancel about 24 or 25 of their outdoor productions in 2018,” Brown said. “I want to make sure our communities like Ashland and Medford have places to go if there is that type of smoke so that vulnerable populations, whether its seniors, children or people with asthma, have places to go.

“We don’t want the Rogue Valley smoked-in for six to eight weeks. It destroys their summer. It’s not healthy, and it’s not good for the economy.”

Speaking with reporters after the council meeting, Brown didn’t say where the state would find the $4 billion it could need to make changes suggested by the council. She promised to find ways to provide Oregon’s Department of Forestry — which faces a four-year, $100 million backlog of debt for fighting fires on federal and private land — with the necessary resources it would need to continue fighting state wildfires.

“We’re asking (the Department of Forestry) to work under a structure that was created in the 1900s to fight fire in what we’re seeing is substantially changing conditions,” Brown told reporters. “I’m relying on the work of the fire council to make recommendations to changes in structure, changes in finance and changes in tools the (agency) needs to do their jobs. This department is a one of the finest in the country, and we want to make sure they have tools and resources they’ll need in the future.”

Contact Reporter Sam Stites – [email protected] or 971-255-2480.